A Clear Definition of Abuse

It’s Narcissist Friday!

I was recently challenged to write what I think is a “clear definition of abuse.” You see the reason, right? It used to be that abuse was defined by someone going to the hospital. A slap, a kick, even a punch just wasn’t considered a big deal. Emotional or verbal abuse was laughed at. I remember a pastor who thought spanking his wife for disobedience was a normal thing in marriage. A woman who came to church with a black eye might have been pitied, but people didn’t consider her abused.

In order for law enforcement to get involved, a life had to be in danger. Children were not just spanked, but beaten without concern from educators, clergy, and government. Even today, spousal abuse does not prompt mandatory reporting in several states. If the patient is informed about available reporting and refuses it and is given contact information for helping agencies, even doctors and nurses are not required to report physical abuse in even more states.

Some things are different today. The idea of abuse has become a popular way to get attention. People feel abused when their feelings are hurt. If you disagree with their politics or their religious opinions, they feel abused. If you criticize their work or challenge them in any way, you are abusing them. That is an unhelpful use of the word and a manipulative use of the concept.

I won’t suggest that true abuse lies somewhere in the middle because I am not sure you can adequately define abuse by a certain action or behavior. Instead, I think you have to define abuse by intent and effect.

The third-grade girl sits behind a boy and pinches him every time he relaxes. Is that abuse? The boy meets her in the hall and gives her an unwanted kiss. Is that abuse? The woman teacher grabs the boy and squeezes his shoulder hard as she hauls him off to detention. Is that abuse? The same teacher hugs the girl who was kissed. Is that abuse? That teacher stops off at a restaurant on the way home and a man tells her she is attractive. Is that abuse? The man gets punched in the face by another man who thinks he is protecting the woman. Is that abuse?

We think we know what abuse is. We think we would know it when we see it and certainly when we experience it. We would like to think that abuse is a cut-and-dried issue with a clear definition, but it really isn’t. Instead, there are many factors that have to be considered. Courts and authorities have to listen to dramatic details to determine if there were an abuser and a victim.

Courts have to take into consideration such things as intent and effect. What did the offender mean to do? Knowing that abusers lie and that negligence is also a culpable offense, the court must decide whether something was abusive. And was the victim actually damaged or harmed? Again, knowing that victims can also lie and that discomfort or disagreement does not constitute abuse, the court must determine whether a person was abused. Today we understand the concept of negligence that causes harm even without intent. We also understand the damage caused by emotional abuse without significant physical effect. But these things make the definition of abuse even more difficult.

If you are the injured party, the victim, the intent of the offender almost doesn’t make a difference. You still hurt. You still suffer. But if you are the accused, intent makes a great deal of difference. You might even agree that you should be held accountable for an accident or unintended harm from negligence, but you would never consider yourself an abuser. In fact, the level and type of injury might matter a great deal to you. Are you liable for someone’s hurt feelings? Isn’t there a certain level of pain or harm that isn’t real suffering? At the same time, an attempt to harm that fails clearly indicates intent even if there is no injury at all. These things matter in the arguments.

So, I think the word has become too difficult. It is misused and avoided for personal and organizational interests. Instead of worrying about what to label as abuse, let’s consider what behavior should be held accountable. Here’s what I think:

Injury to a child, whether physical, emotional, or mental, should result in accountability whether intended or not. Greater injury may call for more serious accountability, as would more direct intent.

Injury to an adult in a dependent relationship should also call for accountability. A passenger in your car, a spouse, a dependent parent, a church member, an employee, a student: all of these have the right to expect a level of responsible care.

Injury that is directly intentional must call for accountability. If I punch someone in the face, I should be accountable for that action. A court may decide there was some mitigating reason, but I should still be investigated.

The intent of injury, even if the attempt fails, should also call for accountability. The desire to harm, combined with the act of the attempt, should be considered the same as a successful attempt.

Now, all of these are already used by our court system. These make sense and seem right to us. We link intent and cruelty. We link injury and violence. Everyone understands that cruel violence is abusive and, in normal circumstances (not military or self-defense), offenders should be held accountable. The problem is defining things like cruelty and violence.

To back away from this problem for a better perspective, abuse is simply the misuse of something or someone. In a personal relationship, abuse by that definition would be misusing the other person. A husband abuses his wife when he misuses her, for example. If he dumps his anger on her verbally, criticizes her relentlessly, makes her feel of less value than him or others, he is misusing her as a wife. His responsibility is to love and protect and support and so much more. To do less is to misuse both his and her roles in the relationship. The same is true if a wife demands or criticizes her husband in ways that demean him. We can think of other types of verbal and manipulative abuse.

It is hard for most of us to imagine a situation where it would be acceptable for a husband to beat, slap, or spank his wife in anger or “discipline.” But just because many people grew up in homes where that was normal, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t abusive. That is not what a husband should do to his wife. Nor would it be acceptable for a wife to do those things to her husband.

Parents should care for their children and love them. To do less is to misuse them. It is a misuse of the parental role, an abuse, for parents to neglect or injure their children. To withhold things necessary for life and health, to tear down identity and values, to use for sexual gratification—these seem obvious misuses/abuses.

Bosses have a responsibility to pay employees fairly and expect reasonable workloads. To do otherwise is a misuse of the employer/employee relationship and is abusive. Pastors have a responsibility to care for the spiritual health of their people. To burden with unreasonable rules or to take advantage of vulnerability for personal gratification is abuse. Obviously, there are many examples and many different situations.

So abuse is the misuse of a relationship role. When we use others with little or no regard for their pain and have only our own desires or needs in mind, we abuse. Some abuse calls for societal intervention based on the level of intent and injury.

Frankly, I feel somewhat intimidated writing this. It seems risky. So many have suffered so much pain, and I certainly don’t want to minimize that or marginalize anyone. Please accept this as an attempt to give some definition to a very difficult topic. If I have fallen short, I apologize.

If you feel that the treatment you are receiving in a relationship is inappropriate or hurtful, you have the right (and maybe the responsibility) to do something about it. Find a good counselor, or perhaps two, who can help you sort out what is happening. Very often, victims are so broken by the abuse they suffer that they don’t even know if it is wrong. I wish I could tell everyone to go to your church leaders, but I know how often they will allow people to suffer in order to maintain their image. Find someone who doesn’t know you or the person who is hurting you. If they say you are not suffering abuse, or they simply dismiss you in any way, ask someone else. Find someone who cares. You may come to the conclusion that you are not being abused, but you do have to deal with the fact of your pain and struggle. On the other hand, if you are being abused, there are people who can help. Find them.


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Narcissism in the Church

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12 responses to “A Clear Definition of Abuse

  1. David, Do you think it’s abusive if the husband has a belief that he is superior to the wife because he is a man — and his religion has taught him that he is the “head” and responsible for his wife.

    My daughter’s future in-laws are very sweet and kind people, but have this belief that my daughter needs to submit to their son, allow him to make decisions (or rather his decision is the final say), and only have a joint bank account where the man decides how to spend money (earned by both people).

    My daughter and her fiance do not believe this. They believe they are equal and will have a partnership in marriage. They believe in mutual submission and mutual love. They’ve studied the original greek and the culture and realized how much of Ephesians 5 was added to in order to make a wife second class/position — similar to Plato philosophy of the time.

    All that to say — My daughter’s future mother in law is smart and a teacher (one of the few careers she is allowed to choose from – a career must be in a subservient position). She is happy and doesn’t see herself as abused, she sees herself following “God’s” will.

    But when anyone powers over another, that’s abuse, or am I missing something?

    • Every time I started to write a response to this, I had to delete and start again. Your question opens the discussion of why one role (husband) is seen as protective and the other (wife) is seen as weak, needy, and submissive. I have met very few weak and needy wives. Those that fit that description have almost always been victimized already. Most of the wives I know are strong and vital to their family. To suggest that one role is superior is ignorant.

      At the same time, there are obvious reasons for the historical suggestions that the physically stronger (in terms of weight and power) should protect the smaller or weaker. (I even cringe a little saying that, since I know my wife is stronger than me in several ways. She certainly can endure more pain.) In a battle or in a culture where there was physical risk, the husband had a protective role for his whole family, especially his wife.

      So, I don’t reject the Biblical concept of headship or husband responsibility. It should never suggest more value or superiority, however. That misses the point. Within cultural roles, one cares for the other in different ways. Neither is more important.

      I believe that the Biblical definitions and guidelines were given to encourage and support both husbands and wives in the relationship. Both are of equal value, but even that isn’t the point. Both are persons. Both have a right to respect and honor. Both have a responsibility to the other. Both have something to add to the value and strength of the other. To reduce one is to reduce the other. Those who twist the words and ideas to fit their hierarchical desires do a disservice to couples, children, and society.

      Your in-laws sound fearful that your daughter could hurt their son somehow. Their concern doesn’t seem to be so much about cultural norms as about parental control in their son’s marriage. Frankly, they need to back off. If the “kids” are agreed on the parameters of their relationship, the parents should relax. There comes a point where we have to allow our children to make their own decisions, even when we disagree. Sometimes we will be surprised at how well they do in the things we thought were mistakes.

      Yes, when one “powers” over another to assert superiority, I would consider that abuse. In fact, the assertion that one partner is “superior” to the other is a misuse/abuse of the relationship. It is also a short-sighted and foolish way to look at someone who is called to add blessing and support to your life. A husband benefits from a strong and wise wife. I think that’s consistent with what the Bible teaches.

      • Thank you David, I know my question wasn’t a simple yes or no, and the perspective you’ve added is greatly appreciated. It seems, as your article indicated, each situation is unique and must be determined accordingly. I just feel for this gal who probably could have done and gone further with her life if she wasn’t told her entire life that she was second and limited. I live in the south and feel I’m surrounded by women whose lives would have gone a different direction if they knew they were considered equal/worthy/loved/valued by God and could follow His direction for their lives. Instead, their lives are truly limited. This issue makes my heart ache.

    • Mark

      I think that’s a complex question. People generally consider abuse to be intent to cause harm, so whether or not there is actual harm, they both believe their chosen role is God’s will.

      I believe that a husband and wife can definitely choose that sort of lifestyle and have it not be abusive. The problem arises when they try, and I presume that they will, to manipulate their children into the roles they’ve chosen for themselves.

      My wife and I have joint accounts and we have a marriage that probably egalitarians would call complementarian and complementarians would call egalitarian. But, it might be wise to recommend that a new couple keep the accounts separate for the first few years out of an abundance of caution, with the intent of combining them later.

      What I’ve seen in marriages is that they typically don’t have the same level of self-control, and typically, the one with less financial self-control gives up control of the finances to the one with more self-control. But I’m sure that doesn’t always happen, so there should be a period of time where that can all be worked out. I’ve definitely heard of instances where the finances were raided for expensive toys.

      • This is true, Mark, about how finances can be raided for toys–expensive or not. Money doesn’t grow on trees and when the budget is tight, even inexpensive toys, when purchased often enough, drain accounts. When the husband is the one doing this, leaving the wife’s needs, much less her equal desires, out of consideration this is of great difficulty. We can’t ignore how many times a narcissistic husband uses the so-called “Biblical” perspective to manipulate his wife into giving up way too much so that he never has to change or sacrifice anything he wants to have or do. All the sacrifices are hers. In Bible times, there were no such things as bank accounts.

      • Agreed Mark and Mary. My ex narc of 20 years, gave me $200 a month for food, clothing, etc for me and five kids. He took $800 a month for personal use. He would loose his job often and then for 17 years didn’t work at all. So even though I made all the money, I still wasn’t allowed to determine where it was spent. So glad I’m out of all that mess.

        I’ve advised my daughter to keep separate accounts until they both exhibited the same responsibility, or forever, it’s their choice.

  2. Mark

    I think this also has to be understood in a way that unwinds the authoritarian culture of our day. We societally assume that the more powerful in the relationship is also the more righteous and capable, or conversely, we assume that the weaker person in the relationship must take the “higher moral ground” of accepting mistreatment to prevent societal breakdown.

    I’ve struggled to this day with the idea of evil intent. The abuse I suffered was more cultural and authoritarian than something specifically for the purpose of causing me harm, but I was harmed, nonetheless. When I talk with relatives about it, they say ‘it wasn’t _good_, but I don’t think you can call it _abuse_’. So, I think the intent is the primary yardstick when it comes to societal consideration of abuse.

    Negligence generally suggests a crime of omission, so I think there needs to be thought around, what do we call something a person does without criminal intent? A father who hits his child – with the intent of correcting bad behavior, but with the consequence of causing injury.

    I think this gives people like me comfort because it isn’t black and white. My dad wasn’t perfect and he wasn’t an evil abuser, but he did things that caused seemingly irreparable damage to me emotionally and spiritually, through selfishness, carelessness and even a well-intentioned desire to teach me correct behavior.

    Back to the conversation, I think that “action” and “inaction” are somewhat parallel, and so the laws should be structured primarily around “intent” and “harm”. For example, if I kick a rock off a bridge and it happens to hit and kill someone in a boat below, that’s probably about the same as forgetting to replace a manhole cover that someone falls into and dies. In this case, no intent, but great harm.

  3. Rita

    Thank you for this multi-faceted and thought through definition of abuse. Thank you for continuing this blog and safe space for many years.
    It has been 8 years since I found your blog, when I was at my lowest and going through a separation where there were so many lies so charmingly told that my pastor believed my abusive husband, and I was thought to be mentally ill. Your personal email meant more than you will ever know, and I’m sure there are countless others who would say the same. It is an honor to help support this ministry. Congrats on your latest book!

  4. Susan

    After reading this post I am confused if my husband is abusive. I earn all the money in my family and my husband has not worked for 2 decades. He tells me it is difficult to get a job he is trained for (since we moved to another country for work) and I had to let the matter rest. I am not sure if he could not find a decent job or if he has no intention of working. When I first met him, he was struggling with work and I had to help him out financially. Later he did a degree and got a good job. About 3 years into our marriage he said he was let go by his company and he has been unemployed since.

    When we moved abroad I let him have joint control of my bank account since I was busy working and he stayed at home (and did the cooking and groceries) also I had no reason not to trust him with the money then. But over the years I discovered he abused his position and much money has gone missing. I am not sure what happens to the income as he gives me no account. We have fought so much over money. He does not let me spend too much of money on myself and gives me a little each week. Sometimes to punish him I spend lavishly on myself and our son without his knowledge (which my pastor calls a sin).

    I also discovered he used porn frequently but refused counseling. Whenever I brought up the porn issue or his refusal to intimacy, he argued back and blamed me for not being attractive, fat or sexy. He likes to put me down subtly and barely has nice things to say.

    Recently I found out he had an affair. From my bank statement I found out he had used $3500 on his girlfriend. When I confronted him, he shouted at me and said money is easily replaceable, which by the way he did not replace. I am not sure if he has had other relationships but he keeps phone numbers of girls who communicate with him on his phone, whom he has never talked about to me. So he has dubious friendships with girls whom I am not aware of.

    I have one son. I have put up with my husband’s behavior for so long for the sake of my son. I am fearful of taking back control of my money as he could take it out on our son. He can argue incessantly and go on for an hour or more.

    My pastor counseled me once and said my husband probably did what he did as he wants a pretty wife. That made me feel really bad and even more ugly. Please tell me if the Bible allows a husband to reject his wife if he felt that his wife is not attractive or sexy. My husband seems to think so. He said that this is the reality and how men are wired this way by God to be visually stimulated and a wife only has herself to blame if the husband rejects her. He has always made me feel unworthy and without any value and I hate him. I told him to leave our home and go back to the States but he refused.
    I am absolutely convinced that he stays on to continue accessing my money without having to work.


    • So sorry for making you wait for moderation!

      To answer your question: Yes. Yes, I think this is a misuse of the husband’s role. Yes, I think you are being used. Yes, you should think seriously about taking back control of your money for the sake of your son and the health of your family. Yes, his adulterous affairs are abusive to you. I could go on.

      Personally, I think the pastor’s words are abusive besides being stupid. I have heard a lot, but I find that comment almost incredible. What kind of pastor would say such a thing? So cruel and so wrong.

      No, there is nothing in the Bible that would support a husband who rejects his wife because of her looks (especially when he still uses her in other ways!) Again, that’s just cruel. It is natural for physical appearance to change over the years. The world might decide to be that cruel, but nothing in Christendom supports that.

      You should ask Jesus what He would have you do, but this man has already abandoned you as a husband and is abusive in several ways. That’s just my opinion, but that’s what you asked for. I expect others here might be even stronger.

      Please find a way to take care of yourself and your son. Please find a way to health and strength again. Please remember that the Lord loves you. Please also know that there will be many here praying for you.

    • Sue, I thought I was reading my own bio when I read your comment. I divorced after 21 years (17 he refused to work and racked up over half a million in debt that I was stuck with because I was the only income provider – church excommunicated me and years later, the church still pays for his living, and he still doesn’t work). All that to say, do be very careful and learn as much as you can about court systems and escape plans. My ex tried to kill me and the kids and ended up going to jail (where we finally had peace), but knowing what I know now, the one thing I would have changed was control. Take the control of my own life instead of trying to control the situation thinking if I just do the right thing HE would change and it would all be better.


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